By Su Byron
Many people talk about climate change. New College alum Jason M. Evans ’05 tries to do something about it.
That’s the heart of his work as an associate professor of environmental science and studies and the executive director of the Institute for Water and Environmental Resilience at Stetson University. It also informs his work as the co-editor-in-chief of the Journal of Environmental Management.
Most of Evans’ current research involves socioecological and geospatial scenario-modeling of sea-level rise within coastal areas in the southeastern United States. He is also highly engaged in research to better understand functional utilization of novel ecosystems for adaptive habitat management and climate change resilience.
Q: What you do professionally?
A: I’m trained as a systems and landscape ecologist, and my research expertise is in spatial analysis and modeling of coupled human-natural systems. Much of my recent work involves assessing the sea-level rise vulnerability of coastal communities of the southeastern United States, especially in coastal Georgia and Florida.
Q: What changes have you observed in Florida’s quality of life?
A: I grew up in Orlando and have lived in Florida most of my life. Like many other long-time Floridians, I feel a sense of sadness and loss about rampant, sprawl-based development. We’re losing all kinds of outstanding natural systems every day, and much of our newly constructed built environments continue an unfortunate paradigm of chemical-intensive turf grasses, car-based commuting and utter disregard for existing natural habitats. But there are some exceptions to this, and I’m something of an optimist. I do think there are opportunities to change this paradigm. The terrible effects of harmful algal blooms impacting so many Florida waters recently just might be changing perceptions a bit. It’s still an open question as to whether our institutions can be forceful enough to truly combat the inertia of business as usual.
Q: How did your New College education prepare you for this work?
A: I studied philosophy at New College, mostly under the advisement of the legendary Douglas Berggren. Doug was an amazing mentor and cross-disciplinary thinker who’d frequently note that he ended up as a philosopher because he could never “pick” just one discipline of study. While I didn’t become a professional philosopher, that cross-disciplinary spirit (which most New College professors share) certainly had a profound influence on my career trajectory. Other New College mentors like Julie Morris, Jono Miller and Dr. Heidi Harley also greatly influenced me. Most of my sea-level rise studies involve stormwater mapping. I originally learned how to do that in my project work with Jono, Julie and Heidi. It wasn’t easy, but the techniques that I figured out put me on a path to where, some 15 years later, I’ve become one of the state’s top experts in sea-level rise impacts on stormwater systems.
Q: What is your scientific diagnosis of Florida’s future in the time of climate change?
A: Florida faces a tough future. The most existential long-term threat is sea-level rise, which is already impacting Florida’s coastal communities. But what’s especially humbling is that the issues we’re facing right now represent only a minor preview of what we’re likely to face over the coming decades. For example, over the past 100 years, Florida has seen about eight to nine inches of sea-level rise. The rate of sea-level rise has already accelerated over the past 20 to 30 years, and we expect it to continue accelerating for the foreseeable future.
Q: What are the worst- and best-case climate scenarios for our state?
A: The worst case is rapid warming that prompts a catastrophic collapse cycle on Greenland and/or Antarctic ice sheets within the next few decades. There will be rapid sea-level rise (eight feet by 2100) and it will continue at a highly accelerated pace for several centuries. If that sounds far-fetched at first, the recent geologic history tells us it’s not. After the end of the last Ice Age, there were indeed many centuries where sea levels rose on the order of more than one foot a decade due to collapsing ice sheets. While that planetary warming and sea-level rise happened as part a “natural” orbital cycle, human greenhouse emissions could very well bring about a similar cycle of rapid warming and sea-level rise.
Q: What actions can we take to prevent the worst-case scenario?
A: Reducing greenhouse gas emissions rapidly, and sequestering carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere for the purpose of climate change mitigation, are critical. Although I’m not a huge fan of geo-engineering, I suspect we’ll end up employing fairly aggressive technologies at a planetary scale in an attempt to slow and reverse global warming. For example, there are several technologies being considered for the purpose of manipulating and reducing incoming solar radiation, thereby helping to slow the warming of the planet. There are also various ideas for speeding up rates of carbon sequestration within oceans. I hope that we can somehow avoid such drastic measures, which certainly would have high economic and ecological costs. But each year of business as usual makes it more likely that such measures will be seen as necessary in order to avoid the worst impacts.
Su Byron is the communications specialist for the New College Foundation.